March 28, 2014
by Abdu Murray
In Acts 1:12 the disciples leave the Mount of Olives after Jesus’ ascension and go to Jerusalem, where the promise of the Holy Spirit is waiting. That distance—from where they stood gazing to the heavens to the place of the promise’s fulfillment—was only three-quarters of a mile. The Bible calls it a “Sabbath day’s journey.”
That’s a profound little phrase. Today, we’re looking far and wide for fulfillment—answers to our quest for purpose and meaning—because we’re under the impression that deep answers are found in mountain-ensconced ashrams or along European backpacking trails or in college where we “find ourselves.” As an itinerant evangelist and apologist who speaks in diverse settings, I’ve talked with skeptics and doubters who aren’t just visiting churches but are actively involved in and perhaps lead church programs. They come to church to fulfill a desire for community and belonging. Yet, for whatever reason, they feel that their deepest questions are not answered where they go every Sunday.
But the answers are there if we can artfully (and prayerfully) offer them. In his Pensées Blaise Pascal wrote that the way to address deep doubt is “first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.” Vibrant churches strive to make the gospel attractive so that the doubters who come will wish it were true. But to captivate hearts and minds for Christ, we need to show them how the gospel comports with reason. We need to show them that it is true and that it answers their toughest questions.
I was a proud Muslim before committing my life to Christ at twenty-seven. As a Muslim I clung to Islam’s fundamental doctrine, expressed in the familiar phrase Allahu Akbar, literally “God is greater.” I wanted a faith that would exalt God as the Greatest Possible Being. And as I began to see that the gospel might actually be that faith, I embarked on a nine-year journey of spiritual and intellectual discovery. That journey took me through countless books, articles, emails and conversations with scholars across the world. I mistakenly believed that I couldn’t find any answers to my sophisticated questions at the local church. So I went looking far and wide. And after years of intellectual and emotional struggles, I finally discovered that the gospel offers me a self-sufficient yet self-sacrificial God who embodies the greatness I longed to worship. The cross was attractive and true to both my mind and my heart.
Amid life’s questions, we all have a Grand Central Question—the answer to which brings all other questions into focus. The gospel is attractive and true because it both affirms and answers our Grand Central Questions. The secular humanist’s Grand Central Question is, “How can humanity have objective value?” Jesus’ payment at the cross demonstrates how valuable each of us is. The pantheist’s Grand Central Question is, “How do we escape from suffering?” The cross is God’s answer to suffering that is not a mere illusion but a reality God experiences himself and delivers us through. And to the Muslim the gospel offers the cross as the greatest possible expression of love by the Greatest Possible Being. Historically, theologically and existentially the cross is simultaneously what can make good people wish the gospel were true and can show them that in fact it is.
Many who are coming to—and even serving in—our churches are looking for answers to their Grand Central Questions. If we incorporate intellectually stirring answers into our spiritually moving Sunday sermons, those very same people will begin to see that the answers they seek are no further away than a mere sabbath day’s journey.
Abdu H. Murray (J.D., University of Michigan) is the author of Grand Central Question (InterVarsity Press, 2014) and the president of Embrace the Truth International. He is also visiting professor of Christian thought and apologetics for the Josh McDowell Institute at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 1:01 PM
March 11, 2014
Samuel Johnson is one of my heroes. I was introduced to him by my eighth grade English teacher (thank God for early English teachers!), but it was many years later that I came to feel kinship with him, when I learned that he was a devout Christian, passionate in his desire to become a more exemplary believer.
It was still later, however, that the preacher in me came to appreciate Johnson. This was partly because Johnson - author of our first “complete” dictionary of the English language — was a master of words, and words are the preacher’s stock in trade. Perhaps it was because Johnson was such a master of language that, though devout, he found most sermons hard to listen to, tedious and seldom to a point.
Nevertheless, as a journalist Johnson was close kin to us preachers. He had to meet deadlines, whether for the publisher of his dictionary and his notable biographies, or for the periodicals for which he wrote throughout his lifetime. He learned that to be a writer he couldn’t live by moments of inspiration. Whether he felt like it or not he had to have something for an editor or a printer at a given day and a given hour. This made him like us preachers, who are expected to have a word from the Lord by a set time, usually at a particular hour on Sunday morning. Even the most spiritual of congregations won’t put up long with a preacher who announces at intervals, “I didn’t feel any inspiration this week,” just as an editor isn’t sympathetic with the writer who pleads that she’s suffering from writer’s block.
Samuel Johnson had convictions about writing, and they’re good for us preachers. “A man may write at any time,” Johnson said, “if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
The 2014-era preacher will answer that Johnson didn’t deal with the distractions that plague us. True, he didn’t have a distraction plugged into his ear or fastened to his belt, nor did canned music follow him through the markets or pubs of London. Nevertheless, he struggled endlessly with the greatest of all distractions, his own temperament. He was a man who loved conversation, so he stayed up too late at night to talk with friends, and then he loved sleep so that he remained in bed too long in the morning. The trivial constantly enticed him away from the significant. You realize this when you read his birthday, New Year’s and Easter prayers of rededication. He was always fighting the trivial.
But above all, Johnson knew this: He could write if he would set himself doggedly to it. Beyond self-excuses, natural weariness, and the clamor of other voices, he knew that the choice was his. And his faith told him that God was on the side of his dogged perseverance.
That’s the way Samuel Johnson met his deadlines. And that’s the preacher’s secret, too.
Ellsworth Kalas is senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and the author of many books, including Preaching the Calendar (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and Faith from the Back Side (Abingdon, 2011).
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 2:35 PM